Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Johannes Brahms

Until 1865, a significant percentage of Brahms' published work was for piano solo. After this time, he concentrated on vocal music, not publishing a major work for piano until the Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76, of 1878 and the Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, of 1879. Brahms would take another break from the piano until the composition of Opp. 116-119 in the early 1890s. Thus, works for piano open and close his career as a composer. Although the late piano works are brief, they are among the most complex, dense, and reflective works composed for the instrument.

A month before publication, the Fantasias, Op. 116, encompassed five rather than seven pieces, and Brahms suggested to his publisher that the five be printed in one volume. In the end, Brahms added two pieces to the set, which was published in two volumes. Despite the division, aspects of the works themselves create some coherence for the whole. The first and last pieces are Capriccios in D minor and Nos. 4, 5, and 6 are in E major (No. 5 begins in minor but ends in major). Furthermore, there exist thematic links, the most obvious of which occurs in the opening measures of the third and seventh pieces and at the return of the first theme in the fifteenth measure of No. 4.

The Fantasias, Op. 116, do not require the technical facility necessary to perform many of Brahms' earlier works, but an incisive musicality is paramount for a proper understanding of these musical miniatures. Composed mostly in the summer of 1892, the pieces were published that year by Simrock in Berlin. Nos. 1-3 were first performed at a concert of January 30, 1893; No. 7 received its premiere on February 18 of the same year. Contrary to his usual practice, Brahms gave the set a descriptive rather than a generic title.

A fiery work in D minor, the first Capriccio is marked Presto, and requires a technique that is nearly Lisztian. The A minor Intermezzo obscures its triple meter in its outer sections, while the central episode shifts to a clearly articulated 3/8. The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor, returns to the fiery atmosphere of the first piece. Set in the Neapolitan E flat major, the central section falls into a trio format, its quarter-note triplets creating a sense of rhythmic freedom.

The format of No. 4, an Intermezzo, is unusual, and is in part the result of Brahms' predilection for developing variation. The first half of the piece alternates between two themes (A and B), which return in varied forms. After the diminutive third variation of A, a new idea (C) begins on the dominant. The ensuing variation of A returns to the tonic, but what seems to be a typical ternary construction is thwarted by a return of "C," now on the tonic, sandwiched in the middle of the "reprise," which does not behave at all like the first half of the piece. Symmetry is the salient feature of the fifth piece, an Intermezzo. In the opening measures, the material is vertically symmetrical. The motive, at first a half-step, moves upward in the uppermost voice and downward in the lowest, a process reversed on the next beat. The chords, too, are vertically symmetrical, with the narrowest intervals at the outermost extremes. The sixth piece, again marked Intermezzo, brings to mind some of the characteristics of a courtly minuet, while the initial charge of the final D minor Capriccio halts at its more fluid central section before the return of the opening, which ends on D major.